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One Hundred Years of Imperial Bluster

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One hundred years ago this Sunday, December 16, the United States engaged in one of most daring exercises of military propaganda the world had seen when President Theodore Roosevelt launched the Great White Fleet on its 14-month journey around the globe.

Dubbed a "peace mission", the 16 brightly painted white battleships, bristling with cannon, stopped at every continent, except Antarctica, with a message: the 20th Century would belong to America.

Benjamin Tracy, secretary of the Navy, said 21 years earlier in 1886: "The sea will be the future seat of empire. And we shall rule it as certainly as the sun doth rise."

After more than a century of conquering its own continent, America launched its overseas expansion in 1898, defeating the decaying Spanish Empire and grabbing Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines.

As assistant Secretary of the Navy, Roosevelt had pushed hard for the Spanish War. He then fought hard in the war itself, famously charging up San Juan Hill. Becoming president in 1901 upon William McKinley's assassination, TR was faced with an insurgency against the U.S. occupation in the Philippines. He declared mission accomplished, but it dragged on for 13 years, killing 4,324 Americans and between 600,000 and 1 million Filipinos--eerily familiar numbers today.

To consolidate America's new global power and show competing European empires and their subject peoples that America meant business, TR conceived the White Fleet.

It sailed out of Hampton Roads, Virginia on the overcast morning of December 16, 1907, with TR reviewing the procession from the presidential yacht Mayflower. Every 400 yards another gleaming battle ship passed with gilded bows, its white-clad sailors saluting from the rails.

Two of America's great conflicts were linked on board. Among the 14,000 servicemen were Civil War admirals and junior officers who would fight in World War II.

As tensions with Tokyo were rising, the press speculated the fleet was off to a new war with Japan. Roosevelt had kept the fleet's itinerary secret, even from his Cabinet. The crew thought it was sailing around South America and would stop in San Francisco. TR had instigated a rebellion in Colombia to create the nation of Panama through which he was still building his canal.

But the real mission was to show Japan and the rest of the world that the U.S. Navy was a force to be reckoned with in the Pacific as well as the Atlantic. Looking to future wars of conquest, TR also said: " I want all failures, blunders and shortcomings to be made apparent in time of peace and not in time of war." But everywhere it went the fleet's mixed message was not seen as a threat but a sign of American goodwill.

The ships embarked on what would be the first round the world voyage by a steam-driven fleet of steel battleships. It covered 43,000 miles and six continents in 14 months, docking at 20 ports, beginning with Trinidad. By January 13, 1908 it anchored in Rio de Janeiro, where on the first night a drunken brawl with Brazilian longshoreman almost scuttled the mission.

But after an inquiry the U.S. sailors were feted in parades and celebrations despite rumors anarchists were plotting to blow up the ships. From Rio it was through the Magellan Straits where the Sacramento Union predicted the ships would be wrecked and the men eaten by cannibals.

But a Chilean cruiser escorted the fleet through, which then plied its way up the coast to Valparaiso before steaming onto Peru for nine more days of celebration. The ships then stopped at San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco, where thousands of people lined the hills.

On July 16 the white ships entered Pearl Harbor before arriving in Auckland August 9. A quarter million people greeted the fleet in Sydney and the U.S. seamen were even hailed in Tokyo, lowering tension between the governments.

After stops in occupied Manila for maneuvers, with a brief holdover in Shanghai, the ships sailed onto Colombo in present-day Sri Lanka, where that old imperialist Sir Thomas Lipton gave them tea. Passing through the Suez Canal the fleet re-coaled at Port Said. Learning of a massive earthquake in Messina, Sicily the ships sped there to aid in the relief effort.

From Sicily the fleet visited ports of great empires gone by: Athens, Venice and Naples. Speeding through the Straits of Gibraltar for the return voyage, the Great White Fleet arrived home at Hampton Roads on Feb. 22, 1909, George Washington's 177th birthday.

Roosevelt was waiting there on the Mayflower, just two weeks before leaving office for William Taft. TR said the fleet was "the most important service that I rendered for peace." The journey led to a treaty with Japan, securing both nations' Pacific possessions. Congress increased the naval budget and more overseas bases were established for coaling and supplies.

The fleet's voyage highlighted a paradox of American intervention. Goodwill was shown the world, but from ships laden with guns. An idealistic conviction to spread what American leaders consider a superior way of life was mixed with the practical advancement of economic and strategic interests, achieved and maintained, if necessary, by force.

The cynical view is that language about democratizing the world merely disguises American expansion of wealth and authority. The optimistic view is that some American leaders genuinely believe the transfer of U.S. economic and political freedoms to other nations is a righteous cause guided by altruism, not greed.

Where idealism ends and practical interests begin is difficult to discern. While American servicemen were helping earthquake victims in Sicily, the stage was being set for a century of occupations. Mark Twain wrote this about the Philippines, but it could just as well be about Vietnam or Iraq:

I have tried hard, and yet I cannot for the life of me comprehend how we got into that mess. ... I thought we should act as their protector -- not try to get them under our heel. We were to relieve them from Spanish (Communist, Saddam's) tyranny to enable them to set up a government of their own, and we were to stand by and see that it got a fair trial. It was not to be a government according to our ideas, but a government that represented the feeling of the majority of the Filipinos (Vietnamese, Iraqis), a government according to [their] ideas. That would have been a worthy mission for the United States. But now -- why, we have got into a mess, a quagmire from which each fresh step renders the difficulty of extrication immensely greater. I'm sure I wish I could see what we were getting out of it, and all it means to us as a nation.

The Great White Fleet's mixed message is still being sent today to a confused world yearning for America's best intentions.